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Liberty Station Then and Now

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The Arts District Liberty Station is the site of the 2019 WOW Festival, coming Oct. 17-20.
(Courtesy)

Liberty Station, a 361-acre space (which was, for 75 years, a Naval Training Center), now calls itself “a portal to the past, an experience for the present, and a promise for the future.”

NTC opened in 1923 and tripled in size during World War II, providing housing, amenities and basic training for up to 50,000 recruits a year. San Diego became the Navy’s West Coast training hub thanks to the efforts of local businessman-turned-congressman William Kettner and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920.

The original buildings were designed by architect Lincoln Rogers, influenced by the Spanish Colonial Revival style of Bertram Goodhue, lead architect of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. The original landscaping was designed by a Park superintendent, with the help of San Diego Floral Association.

Added later was a large auditorium that, during wartime, brought performers like Bob Hope, Tommy Dorsey and Nat King Cole on base to entertain the sailors and their dates.

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After both hot and cold wars ended, the Navy curtailed its activities here, officially closing the center in 1997.

Many possible uses were considered for the land until the City of San Diego took ownership in 2000, envisioning the site as “a center for commerce, history and the arts.” Development of the Liberty Station community of homes, military housing, shopping, parks, hotels and restaurants was begun, and the NTC Foundation was formed to renovate 26 historic buildings and oversee a 100-acre arts district that would invite San Diegans to experience the creativity of their region.

Since 2003, Alan Ziter has been the Foundation’s executive director. A longtime arts advocate, he was director of San Diego Performing Arts League for 18 years and was one of the founders and, until recently, co-chair of the San Diego Regional Arts & Culture Coalition, where he’s still on the steering committee.

During his tenure, 17 buildings have been renovated and more than 90 arts-related organizations now make their home in Arts District Liberty Station.

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First Fridays of each month offer free entry to museums and sometimes live music, The LOT has moved in with six cinemas and an outdoor restaurant/lounge, there are workshops and classes offered to all age groups and this year’s San Diego Art Walk took place in the Arts District.

Large-scale public art installations are now on view and plans for a major performance center are underway.

“Training has returned to the old Naval Training Center,” Ziter says. “But now it’s lifelong learning and training in art, dance, photography and music. It’s all in the middle of a neighborhood with regular day-to-day activities, so you’re encountering arts and culture on a daily basis.

“And we’re partnering with arts organizations like La Jolla Playhouse, who’ll be using the campus in creative new ways.”

They certainly will be during the WOW Festival.

—Lonnie Burstein Hewitt


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